Fall 1999, Vol. 2, No. 3

Contents Page,
Vol. 2, No. 3


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
From the Editor: The BVM at the BMA

Why Smash the Falun Gong?

Vouchers Move to Center Stage

Spiritual Victimology

Those Revolting Greeks

Covering Israel's Religion Wars

Discriminating Bodies



The Kansas Compromise
by William K. Piotrowski

Ape_Creation_GIF (2).jpg (3989072 bytes)

Long before the Kansas evolution debate captured the attention of the national news media last summer, the Kansas City Star’s Kate Beem was on the case.

Back in April, she tracked the creation of Parents for Objective Science and History (POSH) in the university town of Lawrence, Kansas. ("It started when Ellen and Joel Barber found out that their kindergartner was learning about evolution.") She reported on the "moderate-conservative" divide on the state school board, which was charged with overseeing the creation of new state standards for science instruction. And when the 27 scientists responsible for drafting the standards named evolution as one of five major scientific concepts that Kansas students should be taught and tested on, she caught the echo of the 1925 Scopes Monkey Trial: "More than 70 years after Tennessee science teacher John Scopes was convicted of violating the state’s law against teaching evolution, the debate over the theory continues."

Since "creation science" was introduced into the debate in the 1960s, anti-evolutionists have fought an increasingly uphill battle in the courts. Two U.S. Supreme Court rulings, Epperson vs. Arkansas in 1968 and Edwards vs. Aquillard in 1987, established that creation science is a fundamentally religious discipline and, as such, may not be taught in public schools. In response, creationists like Henry Morris of the Institute for Creation Research and -- more relevant to the Kansas showdown -- Tom Willis of the Creation Science Association for Mid-America have been working to discredit evolutionary theory as a means of removing it from public school curriculum.

That scenario began to unfold in Kansas when conservative school board member, Steve Abrams, promised to present his own revised list of science requirements, eliminating evolution from the state’s standardized tests.

On May 11, Beem reported that it was Willis who had approached Abrams and provided him with the revised list eliminating evolution. In agreeing to present this, along with his own revisions to the board, Abrams became an agent of creationism, Kansas’s anti-Scopes.

Beem’s readers learned that Abrams’s creationist version of the science standards didn’t recognize macroevolution (the current buzzword for theories of the random evolution of species derived from Charles Darwin’s work). Abrams also included the creationist phrase "the idea that the design and complexity of the design of the cosmos requires an intelligent designer" in what he put before the board on May 12.

To avoid a deadlock -- the AP’s Carl Manning predicted a 5-5 split between moderates and conservatives -- chair Linda Holloway put off the vote, which had been scheduled for June, for two months. So the debate over the standards dragged on until it caught fire in the national news media.

Publicity quickly turned the debate into an ugly affair for the school board as creationist and evolutionist groups began to fight it out in the Kansas media. "My faith was personally attacked yesterday," an outraged Holloway said in response to the attacks of critics who belittled creation science. "I don’t want that for any child in the state of Kansas. We see what ridicule can lead to in Littleton." Meanwhile, in a profile of Shawnee Mission Northwest High School biology teacher Al Frisby, Beem wrote, "Frisby is adamant that the Christian belief in a universe created by God has no place in his classroom."

The opinion sections of Kansas newspapers seethed with pro-creation and pro-evolution arguments. "True science is about discovering these rules and learning how to play by them, not about believing one already knows how the game will turn out," wrote John W. Hoopes, Ph.D., of Lawrence in the July 13 Topeka Capital Journal. "Evolution is the fraud of the century, and it is time society ‘evolves’ past this fraud," wrote Jeff Kready and Brian Ayers, two Washburn Rural High School students, in the same issue.

The eruption of national coverage in mid-July put the issue before the public with a salience not seen since 1925, when some 2,310 American dailies covered the Scopes trial. While the Kansas story lacked the clash-of-the-titans quality of the Scopes case, the media focus on the story was exceptionally intense.

The national media recognized not only the historical significance of evolution in American high school curricula but also that in the 1990s much of the action has involved state boards of education. As Hanna Rosin put it in the August 8 Washington Post, "In the last four years, school boards in at least seven states -- Arizona, Alabama, Illinois, New Mexico, Texas, Kansas and Nebraska -- have tried to remove evolution from state science standards or water down the concepts, with varying degrees of success."

On August 11, the Kansas State Board of Education voted 6-4 to remove any mention of macroevolution from state standardized tests in the sciences. The deciding vote belonged to a 70-year-old moderate Republican and Mennonite named Harold Voth. Overall, the board’s decision was a tortuous compromise, giving local school boards the option to teach or not to teach evolution, but also leaving out Abrams’ language mandating instruction based on the intelligent design of the universe.

In newspapers, magazines, and on TV, leaders of major Christian groups and scientists spoke out praising and mocking the decision. Taking the roles of Scopes antagonists William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow were Rev. Jerry Falwell, chancellor of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, and Harvard University paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. Duking it out on CNN’s "Crossfire" on August 17, Falwell hailed his university as one that teaches both evolution and creation and said, "As far as I know, we’ve never had an evolutionist graduate from Liberty after having both sets of facts presented to them." "I don’t regard creationism as a science," Gould countered. "Science is an enterprise about factual information."

In Kansas, mainstream scientists were predictably dismayed at the decision. "If your idea of the way the world works is the first book of Genesis, then you’re not going to believe anything to the contrary," University of Kansas paleontologist Roger Kaseler told Jim McLean of the Topeka Capital Journal. "You can’t use science to understand God," said Tom Wolf, a biologist teaching at Washburn University in Topeka. "And you can’t use religion to understand science. When you mix the two, you diminish both."

The overwhelming majority of Kansas newspapers agreed with the scientists. An August 31 Capital Journal editorial was headlined, "We ask again: What’s the matter with Kansas?" The paper’s answer? "[I]n recent years the religious right has found in the Kansas Republican Party a political instrument advancing its ever-escalating causes."

Local columnists were not entirely of one opinion. "Kentucky has its hillbillies," wrote the Kansas City Star’s Steve Kraske. "Oklahoma has its Okies. And Kansans? In the wake of last week’s anti-evolution vote, we’re the hicks." But the Star’s John D. Altevogt was less convinced that Kansas had become the desert of the bozart: "It’s not just the distortion and exaggerations that get me, it’s the arrogant authoritarianism that just drips from many of those who oppose the board’s new standards."

The opponents did, however, include the state’s top elected officials. "This is a terrible, tragic, embarrassing solution to a problem that didn’t exist," declared Republican Gov. Bill Graves. And Lt. Gov. Gary Sherrer lamented, "We work so hard to build a reputation for the state, and six people have made us into a laughingstock."

At the national level, the vast majority of newspapers mocked the decision and Kansans knew it. "It is gross understatement to say that across the country and even the world, the image of Kansas has taken a beating from the board of education’s decision," opined the Capital Journal on August 13.

Out there, Kansas became the whipping boy du jour. The Baltimore Sun went so far as to reprint some of the blistering remarks on the Scopes trial that H.L Mencken had filed to the Sun. In an effective summary of national media sentiment, the Capital Journal went ahead and repeated the Sun’s reprise. "There may be some legal jousting on Monday and some gaudy oratory on Tuesday, but the main battle is over, with Genesis completely triumphant," wrote Mencken. "Let no one mistake it for comedy, farcical though it may be in all its details. It serves notice on the country that Neanderthal man is organizing in these forlorn backwaters of the land, led by a fanatic, rid of sense and devoid of conscience."

Yet in stark contrast to the derision of the state and national media, the men and woman (then) running to become the first president of the next millennium were not making fun of Kansas.

On the stump, former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley came closest to toeing the scientific line, saying in a prepared statement: "While I respect local school board control, I also believe that every American child needs a foundation of solid scientific education, and evolution clearly falls into that category." Vice President Gore was more circumspect. "The vice president favors the teaching of evolution in public schools," one of his spokesmen told Hanna Rosin of the Washington Post. "Obviously, that decision should and will be made at the local level, and localities should be free to teach creationism as well."

On the Republican side, where the conservative Christian vote is critical, creationism weighed heavier in the balance. A spokeswoman for George W. Bush informed Rosin that the Texas governor "believes it is a question for states and local school boards to decide but believes both ought to be taught." Elizabeth Dole and John McCain "deflected the question by saying the decision should be left to local school boards, without specifying their preference."

On the right wing, Steve Forbes called evolution "a massive fraud" but then danced around the curriculum question on ABC’s "This Week." "The world was formed as Genesis described it," said former Ambassador Alan Keyes. Gary Bauer said, "I reject the basic tenet of that theory," but also took refuge in the vox populi, telling MSNBC, "Polling data shows Americans want both ideas exposed to children. I think that makes a lot of sense."

"I have to say that I believe in the creation enumerated in the Bible," Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah said on CNN, quickly adding that he also recognizes science. Pat Buchanan, headed out of the GOP and into the Reform Party, said he supported teaching children that the universe was created by God, although he did not object to their learning about evolution as a theory.

Altogether, the best assessment of the collision of the Kansas evolution story and the nascent presidential campaign belonged to the Kansas City Star’s political correspondent, Steve Kraske:

"On the second day, the media created a new campaign issue-evolution vs. creationism. "And the presidential candidates said, ‘This is not good.’"

Back on the home front, there was much hand wringing about the impact of the decision on the state. Tom Perrin of the Kansas City Star cited, approvingly, the Shawnee Mission school superintendent’s determination to "cover the same material as we have in the past." Others felt that teachers who teach in areas where Bible-believing creationists are politically strong would be pressured by parents not to teach evolution.

Still others expressed the fear that skipping evolution would put Kansas students at a competitive disadvantage, nationally. (The AP reported on August 22 that the publishers of a textbook entitled Kansas -- The Prairie Spirit Lives, had removed a section describing the state’s geological past because, according to the company’s director, "it did not want to do anything that would limit the book’s marketability.") And then there was the state senate’s Education Committee chairwoman, Barbara Lawrence of Wichita, who told the AP on August 19 that she worried about losing parental support for public schools if the curriculum, including evolution, was not acceptable to a significant part the community.

While most state and national politicians found it easy to live with the Kansas school board’s Solomonic approach, there were costs associated with it. The AP reported on August 13 that a small Oregon computer software company had "eliminated Kansas as a possible site for a new service center because of the State Board of Education’s decision on teaching evolution." The AP also reported that the American Civil Liberties Union, People for the American Way, and America United for Separation of Church and State were all are threatening lawsuits.

And in a move more directly affecting education in Kansas, Heather Hollingsworth of the Capital Journal reported on September 24 that "three national science organizationsdenied the board the right to use copyrighted material in revised science standards for the state’s public schools."

But the creationist community was happy. On August 27, Dianne Carroll of the Star wrote about University of California engineering professor and anti-Darwinian Phillip E. Johnson’s reaction to the decision. The board members were "courageous people," he said, and the media attention "was actually ‘a terrific gift,’ because it brought the issue to the forefront."

In fact, a substantial rift separated public opinion from the reaction of the news media. Polling on the controversy revealed a firm political consensus in favor of the Kansas compromise -- and a serious, long-term challenge for uncompromising evolutionists.

According to a Gallup Poll taken on August 24-26, 47 percent of Americans believe in the fundamentalist view of creation -- "that God created human beings at one time within the last 10,000 years pretty much in their present form." An additional 40 percent of Americans say they believe in theistic evolution, the position that evolution is God’s way of creating things, while only nine percent believe in the standard scientific formulation of evolution in which "God had no part in the process."

The sensibilities of the general public were steadfastly ignored in the media’s criticism of the school board’s decision. Perhaps not surprisingly, the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates know what the people think.